On the attack or on the defense, engineers led the way!
During World War II, U.S. Army combat engineers were at the spearhead of fighting in all theaters, whether the battlefield was North Africa’s desert sands, Normandy’s fire-swept Omaha Beach, the Ardennes’ snowclad forest, or the Pacific’s jungle-covered islands. The 700 engineer battalions mobilized during the war repeatedly proved to be vital components to Allied victory on all fronts. Both on the attack and on the defense, engineers led the way.
The mission of World War II combat engineers (known as “sappers” or “pioneers” in other armies) was three-fold: mobility operations; countermobility operations; and, when necessary, to fight as infantrymen. As Field Manual 21-105: Engineer Soldier’s Handbook (June 2, 1943) explained to trainees: “You are going to make sure that our own troops move ahead against all opposition, and you are going to see to it that enemy obstacles do not interfere with our advance. You are an engineer.”
The mobility operations conducted by the engineers facilitated the forward movement of friendly forces and included actions such as breaching obstacles, destroying enemy strongpoints, and constructing roads and bridges. Countermobility operations blocked or impeded enemy advances and included actions such as laying minefields, constructing fortifications for defending troops, or blowing bridges to stop enemy attacks. Combat engineers were also trained to fight as infantrymen and often did so in emergency situations on the battlefield.
In addition to infantry small arms, World War II combat engineers employed a range of weapons and specialized equipment to accomplish their mobility and countermobility missions. These included demolition “satchel” charges, Bangalore torpedoes (explosive-filled pipes to clear barbed-wire obstacles), mine detectors, bridging materials (for foot, pontoon and steel-framed Bailey bridges), and an array of construction equipment, from axes to bulldozers.
U.S. Army combat engineers played vital roles in many notable World War II actions. For instance, during the June 6, 1944, D-Day landings at Omaha Beach, engineers cleared a path through German fortifications to help GIs escape the murderous enemy fire and move beyond the beach. During the Battle of the Bulge, they not only fought as infantrymen but also, on December 18, 1944, blew up a key Amblève River bridge literally in the face of SS Colonel Jochen Peiper, stopping the German spearhead in its tracks. On March 7, 1945, combat engineers helped get GIs across the Ludendorff bridge at Remagen and quickly erected eight tactical bridges to speed more units across the Rhine. They were able to keep the shaky Ludendorff bridge in operation until March 17, when unfortunately it collapsed, killing 23 Americans and injuring another 93 – mostly engineers.
ACG salutes World War II U.S. Army combat engineers, some of history’s Great Warriors!
Jerry D. Morelock, PhD, “Armchair General” Editor in Chief
Originally published in the July 2013 issue of Armchair General.